terça-feira, 12 de maio de 2015

TOPO Soft and ERBE Software in the Golden Age of Spanish Video Games - It's a Pixel THING - Ep.#49

If you thought that all great 8-bit home computer games of the 80s came from England, well, think again!

This week we’ll be traveling back to 1985, year where it all began for one of the greatest Spanish video game developing companies: Topo Soft.

It all started in 1985, when the Golden Age of Spanish software development for 8bit home computers was flourishing. ERBE Software was, in the eighties, the biggest and most important Spanish video game publisher that became famous not for Paco Pastor, its founder, being the ex-vocalist of Fórmula V, but for their anti-piracy battle attaining the rights to publish video games from renowned companies, like Ocean, U.S.Gold, Gremlin, etc, with much lower prices and sold all throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Back then, when I saw ERBE’s logo stamped on the cover, I knew that I was buying quality controlled and tested stuff for my ZX Spectrum, Amiga and, later, for my IBM PC. This caused a huge revolution; full priced video games of around 12 euros each started to be sold at about 5 euros under ERBE’s label and distribution. Surprisingly for some, it triggered a gigantic boom in sales! From this moment on, piracy was practically a thing from the past. I remember to buy great original games for my PC at my favorite magazine store. Every month, along with Micro Hobby, the most famous Spanish ZX Spectrum magazine, I also used to buy a monthly ERBE publication dedicated to a specific game bundled with its own physical copy. The first number brought Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, The Graphic Adventure, for IBM PCs. ERBE’s marketing & merchandising system was extremely powerful and converted Spain and Portugal, in late eighties, into almost “piracy free” countries.

Besides spawning this low price revolution, ERBE also made possible for the small Spanish developers to prosper and publish their games abroad. One of those developers was Topo Soft that was established at the basement of ERBE’s building. In Spanish, “topo” means “low”, “the lowest point or position” or even a mole.

It all started when Emilio Martínez thought about creating an educational software for his nephew based on the Spanish geography. He asked his fellow programmer friend Javier Cano to do the graphics and, thus, MapGame was born. Curiously the title was developed in a black & white TV, not knowing what the game looked like when they’ve finished it. One day the two friends took the game at a ZX Spectrum reseller and ask permission to test the game on a color monitor. Emilio and Javier were amazed by the beauty of the graphics and the owner of the shop was blown away! Quickly he handed over to the young programmers an ERBE business card.

So, both created their own brand – Action – and, seeing a probable commercial profit, they made copies of the game and started selling it at the “Rastro de Madrid”, a kind of used and second hand stuff local fair.
Then, both agreed on contacting ERBE and their future was, at this point, assured. The publishing rights for the game were sold to ERBE and both programmers were hired to work on an Amstrad CPC version of MapGame and, later, for the MSX.

The game was a sales success and, at this point, they met José Manuel Muñoz, also known as RAMBO, a very talented programmer specialized on working with sprites with masks, a hugely important aspect when working with moving objects on screen.

José Muñoz had this script for an action and fighting type of game and he was so thrilled about it that he managed to convince his two new friends to embark with him in his quest. So, ERBE Software hired José and the trio designed, in 1986, “Las Tres Luces de Glaurung” that was extremely well received by Spanish gamers which led to an English translated version for distribution in the UK by Melbourne House and under the name “Conquestador”.

Feeling the need of separating the distribution business from the development of new products, ERBE created, at this point, Topo Soft.

Still under ERBE’s label were developed two more games: “Ramón Rodríguez”, in 1986, that wasn’t as successful, but highly entertaining, fun and extremely difficult; and “Whopper Chase”, in 1987, a promotional title that was ordered by Burger King to be offered to customers, in which the tape contained all four 8bit versions of the game: Spectrum, Amstrad, MSX and Commodore.
Topo Soft’s première was with the game “Spirits”, in 1987, which led, till 1991, to a gigantic wave of awesome games that catapulted Topo Soft to the very "topo" of Spanish video game development rivaling with the giant and well established Dinamic.

Let’s now take a quick look at the essential games from Topo Soft:
“Survivor” – 1987 – An awesome arcade-action game where you control an extra-terrestrial character somewhat based – off the record – in the movie Alien;
“Stardust” – 1987 – An amazing shoot-em-up that didn’t grab all the attention it deserved;
“Desperado” – 1987 – based in the Capcom Arcade hit GunSmoke and kind of “Red Dead Redemption” of that Era! J  A huge hit in Spain and in the UK!
“Silent Shadow” – 1988 – Action game with two players simultaneously! WoW! Awesome stuff! Was considered one of the best games from Topo Soft. Curiously, the C64 version was totally different from all the others. As you can see, the scrolling is made in the horizontal, from left to right.
“Mad Mix Game” – 1988 – A new vision and, again, “off the record” version of the classic Pac Man. For the English release, they even had to remove the first level, ‘cause it was so identical to the original Pac Man that Topo could run into trouble.
“Black Beard” – 1988 – A pirate’s game where we need to infiltrate a ship and grab a treasure map hidden inside a fiercely guarded safe.
“Chicago 30’s” – 1988 – Something related to the Untouchables or The Godfather movies is purely coincidence! An extremely difficult, but very well made title!
“Tuareg” – 1988 – One of the best Spanish action-adventure games ever made.
“Titanic” – 1988 – Probably the best game Topo Soft made for IBM PCs.
“Colosseum” – 1988 – Another movie inspired game, this time around its Ben Hur complete with chariot races. Was released in the UK under the KIXX label, the budget range of the mighty US Gold.
“Score 3020” – 1988 – Topo’s Pinball game! And I love pinball games! But this one didn’t have what it needed to be a good pinball game. The ball was completely uncontrollable! What a shame..
“Wells & Fargo” – 1988 – The game’s beautifully detailed graphics can, somewhat, attenuate its extreme difficulty trying to control the carriage and, at the same time, blow the enemies away.
“Rock ‘n’ Roller” – 1988 – One hell of a game that I’ve played so many freaking times back then! Simple concept and highly addictive! It practically passed unnoticed. A funny thing about the cover of Rock ’n’ Roller is that in the Spectrum and MSX versions it was inverted! The letters on the “STOP” sign are inverted! Why did they made this? Someone was really wasted or in a bad mood!
“Emilio Butragueño Futbol” – 1988 – This title sold more than one hundred thousand copies! It became the bestselling Spanish video game of all time! But, by then and as for soccer games, Match Day II was still the best.
“Perico Delgado” – 1989 – It was the very time I’ve ever saw something like this: a cycling simulator! What an achievement for 1989 and all fans of “La Vuelta” were amazed by it!
“Viage Al Centro de La Tierra” – 1989 – One of the best Spanish video games of all time! And, as a huge fan of adventure and exploration, I couldn’t simply stop playing it! Sadly, the C64 owners never had the change to try it. Its development was canceled.
“Emilio Butragueño 2” – 1989 – The Spanish localization of Gremlin’s “Gary Lineker” games, “Superskills” and “Hot-Shot”, to compete with Dinamic’s “Mítchel Futbol Master” that was hugely popular in Spain by that time. Sadly, it was a failed attempt.
“Drazen Petrovic Basket” – 1989 – A really poor basketball game.
“Mad Mix 2 – En El Castillo de los Fantasmas” – 1990 – The sequel to Mad Mix Game and, if the first one was based on Pac Man, this one is on Pac Mania! Curiously, they’ve published the game with a black & white cover for fans to develop their own painting skills. Later was announced the winner and the cover would be used in a Special Edition of the game, that I believe never happened..
“La Espada Sagrada” – 1990 – Another awesome adventure game that had its best version on IBM PCs with some amazing and colorful EGA graphics.
“Lorna” – 1990 – This title was based on a comic book character by Alfonso Azpiri, a Spanish artist that also made the cover for the game, and, as well, many others for practically every Spanish software house! And, when the game had a cover by Azpiri, I would certainly buy it! You couldn’t miss! Games with covers made by this great artist were always good games! Take “Viage al Centro de la Tierra” as an example! About the game, it’s a pretty good arcade action title with some differences between the 8 and 16 bit versions. So, you need to try them all!
“Ice Breaker” – 1990 – This one is just to keep the releases coming! Nothing special, just a “shoot all things on screen” type of game.
“R.A.M.” – 1990 – A kind of hard to control game, but, when you get the hang of it, it’s quite fun! Another “kill all enemies and stay alive” game.
“Gremlins 2” – 1990 – The first and, I believe, only official movie adaptation which had such a huge media coverage never seen from a Spanish game. The hype was so enormous that they had to ask the UK based ELITE Systems to make the 16 bit versions! The game was ok, spite the amount of time they spent making it. Many players ended up losing interest and just bought another games. 
“Zona 0” – 1991 – One of my favorite Spectrum games ever and, obviously, inspired by Disney’s movie Tron. Super-fast, super addictive and with awesome music!
“Desperado 2” – 1991 – I was wrong when I said that all games with covers by Azpiri were good. Well, Desperado 2 is a decent game, but was released in a time that LucasArts was around with their amazing point’n’click adventure games and Wolfenstein 3D was, as well, around the corner. This was the point where it all started to collapse for the Spanish video game industry.
“Tour 91” – 1991 – The follow up to “Perico Delgado” and one last breath for Topo Soft. It’s a brilliant Professional Cycling Simulator that, again, attained high scores on specialized magazines and was, I think, the first Topo Soft game with support for VGA graphics on the PC.

Topo Soft made one last effort to conquer the IBM PCs market with 6 more games: “Black Crown” (1991), “Luigi & Spaghetti” (1992), “Olimpiadas 92: Gimnasia Deportiva” (1992) and “Olimpiadas 92: Atletismo” (1992), “Luigi in Circusland” (1994) and, finally, “Super Scrylis” (1994).

The Spanish video game crisis arrived around 1989, year when companies had to canalize and adapt their efforts towards the 16 bit machines that were already flourishing. The 8 bit Era was practically over and Topo Soft tried really hard to make it work.
“Viage al Centro de la Tierra” was probably the biggest bet in the area ever made in Spanish territory. It was one of the few games that had all three most important 16 bit home computer versions - Amiga, Atari ST and DOS - and also distributed in the US without any tangible success.

Every time I saw a Topo Soft game on one of my favorite video game resellers, I was always impressed by their extremely well drawn covers. Back then I was a huge super-hero comic book fan and collector and, as well, created my own universe along with a couple of friends. We even developed our own brand and presented our work at a couple of magazine publishers here in Portugal. Needless to say that they’ve revealed some interest, but that was all. So, we started making and selling our own fanzine on a few specialized shops.

The box art and loading screens from Topo’s games were a sight to behold! Definitely one of the best, in my opinion and taste, obviously!

Have you played any of these amazing titles? Obviously there were other great Spanish video game developers around like, for instance, Dinamic, Opera Soft and Zigurat/Made in Spain. But Topo Soft, being part of the ERBE group, needed a special treatment; it was part of one of the greatest and most successful anti-piracy campaigns ever.

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